Nothing much happens, most of the time, here in Birchiam-on-Sea. Not from my point of view, anyway. Nothing much happens to me. So when my partner of twelve years -- Kay, we never married -- turned around and ran off to London with another man quite out of the blue, you can imagine that it came as something of a shock.
This is a quiet, enclosed community. All the friends we’d ever known were couples. And so … becoming single again, at my age, after so much time had passed, felt like being forced into a leaky rubber dingy and towed out into the ocean till there was no land remaining anywhere in sight. And then being abandoned out there, completely alone, waiting for the bloody thing to sink.
But after a few months, once I had started to get over it, I began that process known as ‘making a fresh effort’. Bought some new clothes and expensive shoes. Groomed myself better than I had in years. And -- my inner gaze fixed on new vistas -- started visiting the scattering of pubs in Birchiam and around its borders, the same way I had done over a dozen years back, my eyes open for a potential new partner. I even rode the train the whole way into Brighton a few times.
With what success? Precisely none. Everybody in the pubs and bars and nightclubs seemed to be in couples too. My interest got me nothing but cold stares from the menfolk, and I almost ended up in a fistfight one time.
“The Internet, dummy,” Dave informed me over a late breakfast at Phil’s Café, one Saturday morning near the end of April.
I’d been gazing through the partly steamed-up window at the town’s broad seafront promenade. Gulls wheeled over it like wind-borne scraps of paper. The tide was in, the water shimmered dully. I could just make out the battered end of the derelict old pier. But then I looked around at him.
“No one under the age of thirty goes out on the pull in pubs and bars these days,” he informed me sternly, as if I’d become Grasshopper, he was giving me the benefit of his Celestial Wisdom. “They do it through the Web. Dating sites, chat-rooms and such.”
How do you know this, oh Wise One? was all I could wonder. Dave was a couple of years my senior, paunchy, ginger-bearded, had been married to Carole since he was twenty five, had four kids and a job in local government.
“Paradoxically,” he added, scratching at the offending beard, “you can get to know someone far better that way.”
“How?” I asked him, rather incredulously. “I could put up a photograph of Joachim Phoenix, claim that it was me, set my salary in the high six-figures and insist I drove a Bentley.”
He peered at me disappointedly, like I’d just failed an important test. “You could do all that, but nobody would buy it. People have got wiser, these days.”
‘People have got wiser’? That must have happened while I wasn’t even looking.
All the same, when I got home -- I had nothing better to do, let’s face it -- I switched on the computer and connected with the Net. And the briefest search on Google revealed …
Hundreds of the sites. No, thousands of them. Most of them were generalized, but some were more specific. Did I like being tied up and flogged? I moved on quickly.
Book-Lovers was the site that captured my attention. An online forum for people who were looking out for partners, and were interested in literature and reading. Did I mention, by the way, that I teach English and American Lit at the adult education college we have here in Birchiam?
I went into the ‘women-for-men’ section of the site, and scrolled down through the profiles and the photographs.
And as you might have expected, few of the snapshots were especially appealing. Tired, dumpy faces peered out at me from the screen, trying to look interesting but falling rather short, their expressions almost myopically hopeful. Am I being harsh here? Maybe. But then, that’s one of the abilities the Internet gives you, doesn’t it? The power to view others on it from an aloof, judgemental distance, understanding that they might be doing the same to you.
I had reached an entrant who claimed to be in her late forties but looked more in her early sixties, and was about to give the whole thing up … when Lara’s face appeared on my screen. I don’t even remember touching any button. Had I? ‘Scroll’? ‘Page Down’? Had my fingertip brushed quite inadvertently against a waiting plastic key?
But … one moment I was gazing rather sadly at a far too-narrow face that time had left its tracks all over. And the next, my eyes were widening at the sight of her.
Her dark green gaze seemed to pin me like a butterfly. Long and glossy black hair framed her perfectly smooth, almond-shaped face. Her lips were parted slightly -- you could see her white teeth as she smiled.
I dragged my own gaze, at last, from her picture to her written profile. She was one year younger than me, university educated, managed an executive-class travel agency. Liked to go abroad herself as often as she could. She collected rare editions in her free time, which I already knew was an expensive hobby. And her favourite authors were the modern stylists who had begun in the Twenties and the Thirties, Isherwood and Scott Fitzgerald, Chandler, and even -- unusually for a woman -- Hemingway. They were my favourites as well, you see.
She was based in Norewick, the next town along the coast from here. And she had provided an e-mail address.
Dave’s words came flooding back to me as I began to type. ‘The Internet, dummy’. Why on earth had it taken me so long to try this out?
‘Poodle Springs’? Totally unreadable. A shame. You into Dorothy Parker?
We had reached mid-afternoon of the same day, and this was the fifth e-mail she’d sent me. And it had begun to feel like chattering with an old friend.
I happily informed her that not only did I love and revere Dot Parker but that, if she were alive today, she’d most likely be writing scripts for Sex and the City, making up terms like ‘toxic bachelor’ and brand-new words like ‘frenemies’.
Absolutely! the reply came back. But I thought men hated that show. Isn’t it supposed to leave them feeling insecure?
Not me, I told her. If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?
Send me your photo?
I broke the connection for a moment, scoured through my files for something suitable that I’d downloaded. All I really had, in truth, were dozens of holiday snapshots. All were couple’s shots, myself and Kay. So finally, I chose the best-seeming photograph, one in which I looked fit, tanned, and happy. And simply … cropped Kay out of it. A row of dotted lines now sat between the two of us.
I clicked ‘save’, and she disappeared. I supposed that was symbolic, although of a sad kind. The sheer impermanence of our age.
And then I sent the end result, and waited breathlessly for Lara’s reply.
Hey handsome! Why don’t we take this liaison out of the realms of the virtual?
She’d come here, she informed me. Tomorrow. Could I meet her at the station? We could have a drink, a bite to eat.
But tomorrow’s Sunday, I came back at her. Like most little sea-side towns, Birchiam was pretty quiet on Sundays.
No problem. I prefer things quiet, she told me.
There was a reason for that, the memory of which still pains me.
The train rolled up dead on schedule the next morning, 11:57, just a skip and a hop from lunchtime. Only four people got out. I spotted her immediately, and felt a sharp burst of relief. Her features were exactly as they had been in the photograph, no wider, no older, the hair as black, the skin as fresh.
But it got even better, because the head-and-shoulders photograph had not prepared me for the rest of her.
I thought at first that she was as tall as I was, till I saw that she was wearing high-heeled boots. She had -- you could tell it at a glance -- one of those elegantly rangy, outdoorsy figures, all of it to do with length of limb and the innate gracefulness that comes from being naturally fit. The kind of woman, in other words, other women glance at annoyedly in pubs. She had chosen to dress -- did she always do this? -- in a nouveau-hippyish kind of way, in a loose, artsy smock that was practically slipping off her shoulders, and a long thin scarf around her neck the temperature did not require. Close-fitting jeans finished off the outfit. Across one arm was slung an enormous purse, so many coloured beads sewn onto it that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in some Moroccan caravanserai.
The smock was charcoal grey and -- I could see as she drew closer -- complemented her green eyes.
Her smile, when it finally appeared, was exactly as white as it had been on my computer screen. She was peering at me as she approached, and I couldn’t help but wonder if her feelings, in any way, mirrored my own. I felt quite exposed and awkward right now, if the truth be told.
She stopped in front of me, her gaze battening on my face. And, when I didn’t disagree with her on that point, murmured “Oh, thank God”, and eased herself forwards to peck me quickly on the cheek.
I thought I felt, in that instant, a brief tingling sensation. All her clothing looked to be of natural fabrics, so … had she picked up a little static from the upholstery on the train?
It was totally forgotten the next moment, though, because she hooked her free arm lightly round my own, and we both headed towards the exit. She was certainly being familiar with somebody she’d only just met. But, honestly, I liked that. It made me feel that there was an immediate connection between us.
“You’ve done this before?” I asked her, pretty certain what the answer was.
“Ridden trains? Talked with someone?”
“Dated on the Internet?”
I could still hear what she’d murmured just before her lips had brushed against me. We went out onto the street, heading down towards the shore.
“It just struck me that … you might have had some disappointments in the past,” I added.
She let out a laugh so bright and loud that a sea gull perching on a nearby bollard suddenly flapped up and wheeled above us.
“Oh, you’d be amazed. It’s not like I run around like this the whole time. But I’ve been out on -- well -- a few of these encounters, and the tricks some people try to play on you. One guy even used somebody else’s photo, from a cologne ad would you believe?”
I remembered the joke I had made to Dave only yesterday, Joachim Phoenix. And yes, was mildly astonished to hear that somebody had taken it beyond the realms of humour.
“But that’s the World Wide Web for you,” she was continuing quite relaxedly. “A stick is a stick, and a stone is a stone, but the Internet? Part truth, part rumour, part gossip, part fabrication, and an awful lot of wishful thinking thrown in for good measure.”
She was a very chatty type, I thought. But then, so had Kay been till the very end, when the shutters had slammed down, leaving only silence.
But it was the way Lara talked. Just as elegant as her figure. Just as graceful as the way she dressed and moved. Did that come from all the reading she did?
I decided to stay away from that particular subject for a while, keeping the conversation on a general level. Simply … getting to know more about her, and telling her about myself.
When we finally reached the promenade, the breeze coming in from the sea made her dark hair rise and flutter. She gazed outwards, her eyes narrowing a little against the shining brightness of the waves.
“This is lovely!” she announced.
And made it sound like she were paying me a personal compliment, as if I’d had a hand in nature’s beauty, locally at least. I could only grin in response. This was going better than I could ever have possibly imagined.
I should have thought to book a table. Despite the fact that we’d passed very few pedestrians on the way here, the Black Bull -- a few yards before the harbour wall -- was packed to the rafters when we got inside, the malnourished-looking students who waited at the tables scurrying about with open desperation on their faces. It would be twenty minutes, we were told, before we could be seated.
So we waited at the bar.
Lara wanted a lager-and-lime, a half, which -- once again -- pleased me. I’ve always considered women who drink beer to be more straightforward and trustworthy than the wine-and-cocktails crowd. But when I turned round to hand her her glass, I noticed that her face had become rather taut and pale.
“Mostly. I’m not too great with crowds.”
“We can try somewhere else,” I offered, genuinely worried I was blowing it, trying to think where else was open nearby. Only a fish-and-chip shop, so far as I knew.
“No, forget it, I’ll be okay. The food looks nice.” A plate of venison sausages and parsley mash went whisking by us. “And besides, it’s something I really ought to get over. Anywhere that’s good is crowded these days.”
The skin around her mouth and eyes untensed a little, and a touch of colour returned to her face, which I was pleased to see. She swallowed, then leant casually against the dark wood of the counter. We resumed our conversation, finding out about each other’s pasts. She had been married in her early twenties, she explained to me. A mistake, and one she’d recognized as such almost straight away. She’d jumped ship within two years of the ceremony.
“Do you keep in touch with him?”
“Frank? Occasionally. He’s not a bad person or anything. Just … not a part of my life any longer.”
Someone was staring at her, I noticed out of the corner of my eye. At one of the nearest tables to us, three generations of a family were taking lunch. Mum and Dad, little son and daughter, and Grandma and Grandad. The old man, who looked rather doddery … was peering at her through his glossy spectacles. There was something in his mouth, but he’d stopped chewing it completely. As if the sight of her … had frozen him somehow. But why?
Lara could see where my gaze was going. So I tipped my chin towards the fellow.
“He seems to know you.”
Her head gave a brisk shake. “Not at all.”
Grandad took in the fact that we were both studying him, and returned his attention to the food on his plate, ducking his head towards it, drooling slightly. One of the others snatched up a napkin and wiped his mouth.
His mind was going, obviously. And so I didn’t think any more about it. Until one of the waiters -- a scrawny boy of eighteen with dark rings underneath his eyes -- came to inform us that a table had come free and led us to it.
He was getting us seated when he looked right into Lara’s face. And stopped there. His eyes widened. And his brow creased with apparent puzzlement.
“Anything up, chum?” I asked him, rather coldly.
What was he about? He shook his head, as though trying to unscramble his thoughts. Then lowered it and muttered, “Sorry, mate. Late night.”
The young man concentrated on setting out the cutlery, and hurried away once it was done, without throwing either of us the tiniest second glance.
He’d been using drugs last night, and the effect of them was still slightly with him. I figured that out later, when I tried to make sense of all this.
And the old man had to be teetering on the brink of senility, that place we call the real world coming apart in his mind. Yes, I figured that out too. Part of me still wishes that I hadn’t.
Our food was set before us. We were waiting for a second round of beers, but they hadn’t shown up yet. We’d finally got around to books.
“You collect?” I remembered from her profile. “Anything in particular?”
To my surprise, the next time she grinned it was an uncomfortable, practically embarrassed one. Her high cheekbones flushed slightly.
“Oh dear. This is the part of the date where you might start thinking, ‘Christ, have I found a fruitcake here?’”
What could be wrong? I wondered.
“Okay. The occult.”
Which was the last answer I’d been expecting. I could feel my eyebrows drifting up.
“Are we talking here … the dark arts?”
I wanted something more specific.
“Anything and everything from right across the world. Anything to do with magic.”
“And do you believe in it?”
The grin was genuinely a nervous one by this time, but she held her ground. “Maybe. A little.”
When I thought about it, well, an awful lot of women did seem to believe in that stuff. More than simply maybe. More than just a little. I remembered Kay’s predilection for fortune-tellers, Tarot-readers, palmists. Opening our local paper, she would always head straight for the horoscopes.
“You’re a cynic?” Lara asked me.
“Sceptic,” I corrected her. I put down my knife and fork and tented my fingers under my chin. “I simply don’t believe that performing certain rituals can, by itself, alter reality, which is what the concept of ‘magic’ amounts to.”
“No, I don’t think it’s the rituals themselves.”
Lara had calmed down a bit, seeing that I was willing to discuss this rather than just sticking some label reading ‘nutcase’ to her. She actually began warming to the conversation. This was the first time since we’d met that we had actually -- albeit very gently -- crossed swords. And she started to enjoy it, once she could tell that I was willing to play along.
“I think, the rituals? Are simply there to bring things into focus, concentrate the mind. I think that … when people cast spells, they put themselves, their essence, their souls if you like, into the magic. And that’s what spreads out into what we call reality. That’s what makes it work.”
I gazed at her amusedly. “And you only believe in this ‘maybe’, ‘a little’?”
“Okay.” Her expression creased into a passive smirk. “ Now you think I’m crackers.”
“No. I think you’re interested in the unusual, and like to figure things out by yourself.”
Which was intended as a compliment, and I was glad to see she took it as such.
“So then, out of these thousands of varied belief systems, which do you think has got it right?”
“All of them,” she told me, “one way or another.”
“But that’s another thing I can’t accept,” I came back at her. “Look at Druidism, and then look at voodoo. They’re so different. Can’t both be correct.”
“There’s one thing that links them,” was her confident answer. “Not simply the two you mentioned. All of them.”
There was apparently something I was missing. So I waited for her to tell me what it was.
“A sense of pantheism,” she informed me. “Every single last one of these ‘superstitions’ relies on a force that runs through everything in nature. Sticks, stones, streams, forests. Read it up. You’ll see I’m right.”
I was willing to accept her word for it
“And do you ever actually dabble in it?”
She looked away from me and muttered something that I couldn’t properly hear. I was embarrassing her by this time, and didn’t want to, so I quickly changed the subject.
“Where are those beers?”
There were four waiters in plain view, buzzing anxiously around, but none of them were looking at our table. So my gaze drifted to the counter, where our two glasses were sitting.
“Suppose I’d better get them myself,” I told Lara. “Be right back.”
I picked my way through the tightly-crowded tables, murmuring apologies along the way. Picked up the beers. They’d been sitting there for so long that the sides of them were damp.
But when I turned back round to face our table …
Where the hell had she disappeared to?
I waited for her to come back. I got one of the waitresses to check the W.C. after a while. Then I looked around outside.
She was nowhere in sight. She’d gone. I had upset her, hadn’t I? I almost kicked myself the whole way home. The most attractive, lively, likeable woman I had met in a whole age, and I had made her think that I was making fun of her. Never my intention but … what had been going through my mind?
A low humming greeted me when I opened the door of my flat. The computer, in the corner of my living room, was switched on. Which puzzled me all over again -- I didn’t remember leaving it that way when I had gone out.
On the screen was a box of a design I’d never seen before, with some kind of message in it, headed ‘Lara’. It read:
I’ve set up a link for us. I hope that you don’t mind. Get in touch with me as soon as you can.
I squinted. How had she done this? Didn’t she need access to my computer first? I wasn’t sure. But, although this whole encounter kept on taking on new levels, she had not -- at least -- disappeared completely. And I was very glad of that. So I pulled up a chair and typed two words.
Her response came back immediately.
I’m so sorry to have vanished like that. Can you possibly forgive me?
I thought that I’d offended you, I told her.
Not at all. The truth is -- and I didn’t want to bring this up so soon -- that husband I mentioned? There’s a child, a daughter. She’s with him right now. She had a little accident, he called me on my mobile. There were so many people I couldn’t get across to tell you. Had to leave. The door was closer. Sorry.
There was no need to apologize, since I felt massively relieved. It hadn’t been anything I’d said that had made her vanish. No, her disappearance had, instead, been caused by the one object everyone above the age of thirty brings to a new relationship. Baggage.
Realizing that she had plenty of it only made me like her more. And so I leapt back quickly into the electronic breach.
That’s perfectly all right. Quite understood. Is she okay?
So she had a little girl called Daphne. I tried to imagine them together … a smaller, beaming version of herself being bounced around in Lara’s lap.
Just a tumble down the stairs, a grazed knee, no few tears. Kid’s stuff. But I still feel really guilty about leaving you that way.
Forget it. There’s always another time.
I stared. This was happening so fast.
Come to me this time, okay?
Then she sent me her address in Norewick.
Willow Street was a short avenue of two-storey terraced houses built of a local pale-grey stone, most of them converted -- obviously, from the pairs of glowing buzzers by their doors -- into maisonettes. Dusk had fallen, and a dog was yapping somewhere in the distance. I stopped outside number fifteen. Not a window in the house seemed to be lit, which was odd. And then I went along the York-stone path of the front garden.
Lara’s, it turned out, was the apartment at the top.
The door buzzed and came open when I rang up, and I mounted a steep flight of stairs. Her own front door was open a crack. There seemed to be only darkness beyond it, no sounds coming from inside.
Which wasn’t entirely true, I noticed when I let myself cautiously in. Over by the far wall, a computer was switched on. The low mutter of its fan reached my ears. And the screen cast out a muted glow. Pictures were alternating across it. Some kind of saver, I supposed. When I stepped closer, though …
I’d never seen one like this. I was looking at a photo of another woman’s face. But she was in her fifties, overweight and jowly, her hair turning grey.
It was replaced, next instant, by the profile of a very gawky-looking teenaged girl, buck-toothed and in heavy spectacles, who had to be around fourteen.
Next, there came a bent old woman in her eighties. What was this exactly?
Bemusedly, I cast my gaze around the semi-darkened room. Almost whistled. Jeez, she hadn’t been kidding when she’d told me she collected books. Two whole walls were lined with them, mostly old and leather-bound, the majority cracked and shabby-looking. Other than that, there was a couch, a coffee table with some glossy magazines laid out on it. A few old paintings on the barer parts of the walls. No TV, I saw, and no stereo either. Which was not odd exactly, but was certainly unusual.
Where was Lara? She had to be here, or else who had let me in? The open doorway to the right of the computer had to lead into a bedroom, but it was completely dark in there.
There was something about this room that was nagging at me, though. There was something a little off-centre about it, except I couldn’t put my finger on it. I turned around again, a mild frustration eating at me. Completed a full three-sixty degrees.
Lara was standing in the doorway that I’d first looked at. I felt more than a little startled. Had she been waiting for me in the dark?
She took in my expression. That familiar smirk of hers came back.
“Light’s broken in here. I was trying to fix it. Sorry.”
I offered to help her, but she only shook her head. “I’ll manage.”
“Like to do things for yourself?”
She was wearing, today, a symmetrical pale-grey dress that began with thick straps at her shoulders and ended with a straight hem just above her knees. There was a large zipper running the whole way down the front of it. If she had looked the nouveau-hippy yesterday, then she was dressed more like someone from the mid-eighties this evening. This was somebody who liked to reinvent herself.
Her legs and feet were completely bare. Were we staying in this evening? I felt a warmth inside my chest at the prospect of that, but my instincts of before kept nagging at me mildly.
“Interesting display.” I nodded at her monitor.
“Oh, that? That’s nothing. Simply some old photos.”
She went across to the keyboard and tapped it with her fingertip. And the latest in the flow of images -- a coarse-looking woman in her thirties with a massive jaw -- blinked away in favour of a pallid, blue-grey glow.
Against it, Lara looked almost ghostly. It was hard to make her edges out. Her face was cast in shadow.
“I’m so pleased you came.”
I glanced around me at the hundreds of old books.
“Perhaps I didn’t have a choice. Perhaps you made it happen.”
Was she grinning? I wasn’t quite sure.
“Could have done,” she told me. “Many of these books have love-spells in them, ways of finding a man and ensnaring him. Maybe I reached out across the Web and found you stuck on it and struggling, and reeled you in. Maybe I even made sure you were single in the first place.”
She was teasing, obviously. But there was something very different about her entire tone, her manner. When we had met yesterday, Lara had been talkative, and breezy, and plain friendly. Simply that. No more than that.
Whereas this evening, she had been more languorous, seductive, from the very outset. And was that -- I wondered again -- why she’d asked me here?
Next moment, she stepped over to the couch, sat down on it. Crossed her long legs -- pale in the computer’s light -- slowly and deliberately, so that the hem of her dress rode up a good couple of inches. Reached out with one slender hand and patted the cushion next to her, gazing up at me.
“This is so much better than that pub,” she murmured. “No noise. No eyes on us. Much nicer.”
Personally, I still felt a little uneasy. Wished she’d switch on a proper light at least. The glow from the monitor was making my eyeballs ache very slightly. But, not wanting to seem wimpish about it, I sat down beside her.
For the next ten, fifteen minutes, we just talked about the usual, general things. I told her more about my work and my break-up with Kay. She explained how difficult life could be as a working single mother. Daphne was with her father for a long weekend, but mostly, she had custody.
The conversation lulled me, and I became more relaxed.
Maybe the computer’s glow was finally soothing me, instead of working against me. It removed any sharp edges from the room, and overlaid most things it touched with a strange ethereal quality. As if nothing around us was entirely solid. I remembered the talk that we’d had yesterday, about reality and how to change it.
Lara’s face had moved closer to mine, by this stage. One of her hands went behind my head, began to gently stroke my hair. It’s thinning a little these days and I keep it cropped, and the sensation was like Velcro.
Her dark eyes, practically black in this light, had tiny squares of grey-blue caught in them, reflections of the shining screen. Her smooth, elegant features seemed to be the only thing around me that stood out in sharp relief. Her front teeth indented her lower lip an instant, like they were posing a question. Then she leaned forwards and kissed me.
The same as yesterday, I felt a tiny zap when she did that. Was this room full of static? It was probably the case she kept the machine on the whole time.
Our lips were still locked, but she wasn’t trying to push her face above me, wasn’t trying to take the upper hand. And so I wrapped both arms around her -- one across her shoulders, one around her waist -- and eased her backwards into the deep cushions. Our mouths parted for a moment. She let out a gasp.
I smiled, and my eyes came open briefly. I looked down at her.
And the next second, I was jumping to my feet.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
Lara was sitting bolt upright, looking almost as startled as I felt.
But I could only blink at her. A blink was all it needed. She was back the way she’d been when I’d first met her, the way she had been before my eyes had closed. Green gaze, black hair, almond-shaped face, marvellous figure.
But just a moment ago, she hadn’t been any of that. When I’d looked down at her I’d seen … I’d seen …
Shakily trying to gather my wits, I recognized who I’d been staring at. That first woman on the computer screen, when I had walked into this room. In her fifties, jowly, with her short hair turning grey. She had only been there for the briefest instant. Just an apparition there and gone. Like God had been fiddling with the remote control for reality, and accidentally switched the channel.
There and gone in, the blink of an eye. I couldn’t stop trembling.
I’d only been imagining it, surely? How could I explain to Lara why I’d pushed away? I rubbed at my face, looked quickly around me. When I stared back at her, her eyes were damp and she looked utterly bewildered, wounded to the core.
“What is going on?”
Maybe I’d been partly dreaming? Maybe the dimness, and that strange glow in the background, had done more than lull me -- they had left me soporific, rather mesmerised?
And then I finally understood what had been nagging me about this room since I had got here.
There were no photographs on display. Not one.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any either. There used to be a couple on the mantelpiece, of myself and Kay, but I took them down and tossed them in a drawer the same day that she left.
It’s just that … Lara was supposed to have a little girl, now wasn’t she? And there was not one snapshot of her as a baby, or a toddler, at a birthday party, laughing on a playground slide. I knew plenty of parents. Enough of them to understand this simply wasn’t right.
No sign of any toys either. No small, discarded items of clothing underneath the couch, no sick-marks on the carpet.
The sense of unease which had already attached itself to me started spreading through me like a churning cloud of fog.
“Don’t you want to --?”
“Look,” I broke across her quickly. “This … is happening much too fast. I’m not sure …”
I struggled to think what to tell her.
“I’m not sure this is right. I can’t explain it really.”
Her face remained immobile. But her eyes? I’d never seen anyone look quite so hurt. I remembered how much I had liked her yesterday, and the fact that I was doing this to her appalled me on one level. But my bad instincts wouldn’t go away. There was something wrong about this whole set-up.
“Why …?” she began asking me.
But I couldn’t even look at her. All that I could do was mumble “I’m sorry, sorry,” like some contrite little boy, and back away from her towards the door.
The dog was still barking when I got down to the street again. I envied it a little. All it had to do was guard its home, and everything else would be taken care of. Life lived on a basic and straightforward level, easy to understand. Oh God yes, I envied that.
I walked back to the corner of the street, then, feeling rather breathless, sat down on the low wall there. My trembling had died away. But that just left me feeling … pretty stupid, pretty guilty. I even considered going back, explaining myself, apologizing properly.
But once again, my instincts wouldn’t let me.
I got home, once more, to the noise of my computer. I was sure I hadn’t even switched it on today. But there it was, humming like an insect’s nest, the screen like a bright eye.
Another message-box was displayed on it. Oh God -- I felt my heart sink, since there was only one person it could be from.
I sat down in front of it wearily and read it through several times.
Rob? Please, please, please get back to me. I don’t know what happened this evening. I don’t understand why you behaved the way you did. You left me feeling as though I’d done something terribly wrong, although I’ve been wracking my brains ever since you walked out and I still can’t work out what it is. Don’t leave it like this, please. At least talk to me. I’m waiting.
Which made me feel even worse than I already did. Like some kind of Victorian cad who’d harpooned her emotions. And I didn’t want to feel like that. But if I started over with her again, even through the Internet …?
The message just … sat there, awaiting my response. I imagined Lara curled up on the chair in front of her screen, doing the same. My hands lifted momentarily towards the keyboard, then dropped back.
“I’m so sorry,” was all that I could murmur, like a record with its needle stuck.
The more time passed, the more I managed to convince myself that I was right. It wasn’t merely the lack of photographs, the lack of any evidence of a child. There had been other things. The way she’d disappeared that Sunday. The explanation that she’d given me? The more I turned it over, then the more it seemed to be made-up. Surely she could have captured my attention? The same with her sudden appearance from a completely darkened bedroom. If she’d been trying to fix a light, why hadn’t she called out to me or -- in fact -- made any kind of sound?
Then … had she been studying me somehow? I liked beer and books, she liked them too, the same kind. I liked women who dressed stylishly -- Kay had always had a knack with clothes -- and guess what?
All too perfect, that was it. Like a construct out of varied parts, designed to please me. I remembered what she’d said about the Internet. ‘Part truth, part fabrication, with an awful lot of wishful thinking thrown in for good measure’. And had she been describing the Web, or herself?
But maybe I was taking the whole paranoid idea too far. How exactly, after all, could she study me?
I threw myself back into my work, and one day overtook the next. The first couple of evenings I got home, I actually tensed a little on the way to my front door. Expecting her, damp-eyed and taut of feature, to be waiting for me there. Then it struck me. I relaxed. She only had my e-mail address, not my land one.
The messages, though, kept coming in.
They were mostly of the same tone as the last had been. And my gut tightened, every time I read a new one. Damn, she seemed to be in so much pain. Too much pain, in fact, for such a brief encounter as ours had been. But I kept on remembering how much -- very much -- I had liked her that first Sunday. The way she’d looked. The way she’d spoken. I had been enjoying her company thoroughly, just before she’d disappeared.
Several times, I almost sent her a reply. But my instincts would have nothing of it. That soft inner alarm bell kept on going off inside me.
Friday came. The dull, grainy weariness of a week’s labour hung around my shoulders as I made my way home that evening. And the next two days were empty, when I thought about them. I had nothing at all with which to fill them.
It seemed I’d left the computer on again. Another message was waiting for me.
I’ve been crying all day. Only that. Nothing more. The way that you’re behaving -- I can’t even comprehend it. Why won’t you even tell me what I did wrong, what upset you? However bad the truth might be, it has to be better than understanding nothing. Just what kind of man exactly are you, Rob?
And, staring at those last nine words, the reality of my behaviour this week finally sank home. I’d thought that I was being practical. I’d even thought that I was being strong. Whereas … the truth? I’d been behaving like a coward.
Worse than that, I’d been behaving like a shit. And, whatever my opinion of myself, I had never once thought about myself in terms like those before.
I sat down, and my fingers hovered just above the keyboard. Then I stopped again and thought, no, this still makes you a coward.
If I was going to do this properly, then it would have to be in person, face-to-face.
For once, the rail service was busy. My own carriage was crowded-out with brightly-dressed kids in their late teens and early twenties, all of them headed across to Brighton for an evening of clubbing. It looked, from my point of view, like a rebellious mob of students had recently run amok in TK Maxx. And it was interesting at first. Young men in loud stripy shirts were already hitting on the cuter women. Sweet-looking girls in extremely short dresses huddled up against their boyfriends.
But then a mild depression started setting in. My mind was already in a whirl. And I was totally detached from everyone around me. I seemed to fit in … where, these days? What was happening to me? Where was this going?
Willow Street was perfectly silent when I arrived this time. Once again, there was not even a small light visible inside number fifteen. Had she gone out after all, taking her tearful anguish with her?
But the door was open a tiny crack. As was the door at the top of the stairs. She was expecting me? How could that be possible?
Once again, her apartment was almost pitch dark as I let myself in, her machine humming quietly to itself, its screen providing the sole illumination. There wasn’t that strange montage of photos on it, this time. Instead, there appeared to be some kind of video game in play, some Lara Croft-type character bustling across an improbable landscape. I went through gingerly into the bedroom. Found the light switch, clicked it on. There was nothing wrong with it.
I switched it off again, returning to the living room.
Took a closer look at the screen. Then jolted back sharply, sucking in a breath.
The figure depicted on the screen wasn’t Lara Croft.
It was my Lara. What the hell was this?
And then, something even stranger happened. The tiny figure seemed to notice me. Her head swung around, and she began running towards me.
The virtual landscape sped below her booted feet, but she appeared to get no closer. I watched the whole thing feeling aghast with disbelief.
After a while, she stopped, looking terribly frustrated.
There was a brilliant burst of light, like a flashbulb going off.
The screen went completely blank. I could sense someone behind me, and I turned around.
It was her. I almost jumped out of my shoes. Where had she come from?
Her, exactly as she’d been the first couple of times, except her eyes were slightly milky now. She seemed confused. Seemed to have lost her bearings and her balance. She was wobbling badly, as though drunk, so I reached out to steady her.
My hand passed through plain nothing. Except, as it did so, static electricity bit at it sharply, and I snatched it back.
I froze up.
She … seemed to be blind. Kept tipping her head around, trying to pinpoint me.
There was, abruptly, another flash. Lara disappeared from view. But was replaced, in the same split instant, by that dumpy woman in her fifties I had seen before.
I stumbled back, bouncing off the desk that the computer screen sat on.
“Rob?” this woman asked me, in a voice I didn’t recognize.
Another flash. The woman vanished, only to be replaced herself by the buck-toothed teenager in her thick-lensed glasses, the one from the photo montage.
Who gave way, in her turn, to the coarse-looking woman with the massive jaw.
I could only stand there, wide-eyed, welded to the spot, unable to do anything as this bizarre slideshow went on and on. How could I even see them with the screen blank? They were, all of them, glowing faintly.
I was unable to do anything but try to think. What I was seeing … I wasn’t mad. I couldn’t drag my eyes away from it, but my peripheral vision started to provide an answer.
Ranked behind the different women -- in their shelf loads and their many hundreds -- were the books that Lara had collected.
My rationalist mind fought to take it in. This was magic I was seeing, in some form. She had learned how to do it. She had made it real.
But what form had it taken? Surely, she had never wished for this?
Finally, I got so panicked I just kept on yelling at the different women. “Lara? Which one are you? Which is the real you?”
The woman in her eighties popped up before me and, unlike the others, lingered there a while. Her misty eyes were filled with teardrops.
“I don’t know,” she told me in a small, hushed voice. “I can’t even remember.”
“It’s all broken. All smashed up. Not working properly at all.”
Another flash tore at my vision. And then, Lara was standing there again. Her eyes were clear this time, and she was staring at me helplessly. Not even thinking, I lunged forwards before she could disappear. And this time, my palms closed on solid flesh.
I think I shook her.
“What’s happening? What have you done?”
Her face creased up with agony. Her mouth stretched open, horribly distended, and a gurgling sound came out.
“You made the magic in the books work, yes?”
She managed a nerveless, spastic nod.
“You … were looking for a partner, for love?”
She did the same again.
“You …” I struggled to remember what she’d said in the Black Bull. “Performed the rituals, focused, and then sent yourself, your essence, your soul, down into the Internet.”
The word came out of her mouth with a touch of spittle round it.
“And what happened, Lara? Tell me!”
Her eyes seemed to flare at that moment, as if madness were exploding in them. Her face, which had been so very beautiful, collapsed into a mass of tortured creases.
“Broken! All smashed up!”
“The magic in the books. It was supposed to flow through simple, natural conduits. Stones, and streams, and trees. Not great massed tangles of wiring. Not silicon chips and circuit-boards. It’s our fault, our technology. We’ve broken the books! Nothing works right anymore!”
I fought to take that in, but barely got time to do so. Yet another flash came, right between my hands, and then I was stumbling back once more.
Because what had appeared in her place this time … was barely even human.
Just as tall as she’d been in her heels. Although pared down to its skeleton, dead flesh clinging to it in parched folds. Its head seemed massive, its eyes were huge. They were green too, but an extremely pale version, blurry. Tufts of hair of no particular hue sprouted up from its uneven skull. Its bony fingers twitched. Its lipless mouth came open to reveal bare, bloody gums.
The flashes came hard on each other’s heels, after that. Faster and faster, revealing creatures that were not human in the slightest. Until finally, I was forced to clamp my hands over my mouth, to stop myself from retching.
Almost blind myself by this time, I got out of there.
The train back to Birchiam was empty. I had the entire carriage to myself. I sat hunched over like a paperclip the whole way, still sweating and trembling. Still trying to think.
That waiter in the Black Bull, he had been on drugs all night. That old man, Grandad … had been hovering on the brink of senility. So their reality was distorted. Had that given them a closer look at what she really was?
And then I took the whole idea a stretch further. Had the magic that she’d tried out … had it worked, at first? I recalled the way that Kay had abruptly walked out on me, after twelve years of what had been a happy, contented partnership. So out of character, for her.
And when I’d been looking at those dating sites? I hadn’t punched a key, I hadn’t even touched the mouse. But Lara’s photograph and profile had appeared, unbidden, on my screen.
Had she actually … oh my God!
I opened my front door to the gentle hum of my computer, and I was damned certain, this time, that I had switched it off before I’d left. I walked over to it gingerly. And then just stood there, Lot’s wife, turned to moveless mineral.
Lara’s face was there, filling up the entire screen. Twisting and turning. And its features kept on changing shape. Its nose bent to the left, then to the right. One of its cheeks expanded hugely, then the other.
It finally struck me -- colder than ice -- what the truth of the matter was. Her features were not changing by themselves. It was pressure -- they were being squashed.
Her face was actually pressing up against the inside of my computer screen, trying to get through it. Trying to get out.
Apparently, she couldn’t. Her eyes were filled with agony, but at the same time oddly vacant, like she was feeling all that inner pain only remotely, distantly, part-numbed by bewilderment. The next instant, her mouth came open. Her breath left a patch of mist inside the glass.
I rarely switch the speakers on, thank God, and so I couldn’t hear it clearly.
But, within the plastic confines of the monitor, the faintest of screams began. And went on, not even pausing for breath. She was beyond needing anything like that.
Finally, panicked beyond any human measure, the only thing that I could think to do was hit the ‘delete’ key. Her writhing image didn’t disappear immediately. But a message, in bold type, popped up.
Do you wish to stay connected? Yes? Or no?
I don’t even have to tell you, do I, which of the two little boxes I chose?
© 2010, Tony Richards